Laura Owens at the Whitney
Laura Owens is perhaps best known for her post-digital canvases that bend painting and pixelation in uncanny ways. In contrast, her retrospective at the Whitney Museum shows a painter who, since her move to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, has been meticulously concerned with how the mind encounters text, image, information and objects without restricting herself to any one technique for mediating the multiple contradictions in given textures, tastes, languages and genres. The works featured – about seventy paintings from the mid-90s to the present – show how she has developed over time without a hackneyed scheme of rote progression. Her paintings are often produced in serial clusters and a continual re-contextualization delays the immediate consumption of any one painting in the show, often pointing to site-specific structures. Owens’s inventive work with Jorge Pardo’s furniture, for example, blurs the lines between functional and dysfunctional, paintings-of-furniture and furniture-paintings. The found texts and images in her work are not fodder just for conceptual operations or pure painterly abstractions; instead, they are uniquely integrated together, with neither aspect gaining precedence.
In an untitled painting from 1995, Owens (*1970) paints angled lines representing a bug-eyed view of a floor that leads to a wall with a cluster of square and rectangular paintings, many of which were painted on the canvas directly by friends and family. This is one of many works that makes one think of the collaborative, serialized and diachronic construing of meaning in painting – not just for the painter, utilising many means to produce her artwork, but also for the viewer, whose vantage point is never static. An untitled 1997 series for her New York gallery Gavin Brown’s Enterprise features a mise-en-abyme effect of paintings-in-paintings, investigating, as the artist has said, how one sees “paintings in the periphery while looking at one head” and “how memory works in a painting”. A series from 1999 includes a painting that is a stretched version of another, blurring the lines between digital alteration, screen-printing and re-painting. Her astute knack for re-contextualization even extends into the show’s colourful and glossy catalogue, which is creatively wedged into cut out areas of the museum seat cushions, and has unique silk-screened covers.
"The complexity of Owens’s slowly unfurling schemes is particularly striking in an age of Instagram-ready couleur de rose photography..."
The complexity of Owens’s slowly unfurling schemes is particularly striking in an age of Instagram-ready couleur de rose photography, clusterfuck masculinism, corporate lobby post-minimalism and hand-me-down conceptualism predicated on the instantaneousness of vision. But this should not be reduced to a quirky sensibility, whimsical affect or cartoonish post-Internet collage. Owens rather shows a rare ability to meld optical textures with conceptual framings, humorous critique and ecstatic vision. The show’s tour de force is a five-panel untitled work from 2015 that occupies the Whitney’s eighth floor. From the proper distance and perspective, the five panels domino into two single images – one when viewing the piece from the front and the other when looking from the back. One side shows digital writing on gridded paper with intruding patches of grid graph and drop-shadowed textures. The other side – where the stretchers are visible – shows pixelated doodles, occasional words and multi-coloured shadowy grids. These large panels are accompanied by a small oil painting that could be a prior study or posterior encapsulation of them. It has an expressionistic enthusiasm with no hint of mechanical reproduction, and shows a desk with a sheet of paper that reads, in cursive, into a pizza crust. The paper represented both here and on the panels has coloured, graded lines of the kind used when learning to write. Yet on the front of the panels, the writing feels more like a billboard: the handwriting changes to standard font and we lose the sense of childlike hunger. Instead, the words, culled from a fairy tale by Owens’s son Henry Bryan (then nine years old), read like found and collaged online language. Meanwhile, the pixelated drawings on the back, which are his renditions of scented marker avours, have the indistinctiveness of touch-screen art. Whenever Owens’s work suddenly feels too digitally at, stray globs of thick paint cause a three-dimensional interruption within the smooth surface.
It is precisely the indeterminacy of her jump from stream-of-consciousness to language-practice to standardized fonts to painterly gestures that shows the instability and ingeniousness of Owens’s representational strategy, which brings to mind Eugene Ionesco’s muddling of poetry and language learning pamphlets in his absurdist play The Bald Soprano (1950). Owens’s flipping from macro to micro, blurry to clear, personal to conceptual and pixelated to painterly prompts reflection on the jagged accrual of meaning not just by the child learning to write but also by the adult learning to process an aestheticized information economy.
"For artists who fall outside the textbook history, medium specificity without explicit dEtournement is verboten unless homage is paid to established tropes of the avant-garde"
This strategy is even clearer in canvases where she paints over silk-screened newspaper writing, highlighting certain areas with oating doodles and covering others with grey paint. Rather than archly pointing to a given structural irony in the Warholian tradition, her use of found text points to the imaginative, fanciful and arbitrary aspects of reading. Other paintings use found imagery from children’s books and cutesy depictions of animals. Born in Ohio in 1970, Owens is part of a legacy of feminist painters who push oft-maligned feminine, cute and cartoony content to the point of abstraction. The curators frame her use of kitsch as upending the heroic, masculinist seriousness of painting. And yet the paintings also play complex structural tricks, disintegrate and re-integrate the grid, and use known avant-garde tropes (such as a painting with bicycle wheels, in a nod to Duchamp) that can be theoretically austere, as much as they are cute or zany.
The show’s labels sometimes use Owens’s deft deconstruction of painting as an apologia for painting – which is symptomatic of the aversion of the modern museum to rigorous medium specificity in diffident, feminist and queer artists. This stems from a phobia of painting, along with traces of expressionism and modernism, unless performed by pre-approved male masters. For artists who fall outside the textbook history, medium specificity without explicit détournement is verboten unless homage is paid to established tropes of the avant-garde. Owens slyly encompasses bicycle wheel irony, the grid, narcissistic-feedback-loops and readymade subjectivity in her paintings, which construct as much as they decon- struct subjectivity. As the contemporary art museum canonizes feminism and the maternal quotidian, it has chalked it all up to that now-old medium, “new media” (kinetic, performative, expanded, hybrid, 2.0), in an effort to wipe these practices clean of the taint of medium-traditionalism (be it in theatre, dance, painting or film). The need for art to be perceived as an ever-refreshing site of dialectic breaking colludes with the demand of the attention-deficit museumgoer for each room to feel like a radical break with the consciousness of the boring, passé moment before. This can eliminate the possibility of thinking through the historical continuum that artists like Owens traverse in their development of what becomes known as the re-new.
Whitney Museum of American Art
10.11.2017 – 4.2.2018
FELIX BERNSTEIN is an artist and writer based New York.